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Institutionalized kids get a chance to grow

Organic food store offers kids new path in life

Institutionalized kids get a chance to grow
Akiko Yanagiya at her organic goods store in Tokyo correspondent, Tokyo

May 25, 2012

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Tokyo’s Akihabara district has long been famous as a haven for “geeks,” crammed as it is with electronics, animation and hobbyist shops. Now it is home to another kind of business altogether. In a former school building, Akiko Yanagiya has opened an organic food shop with an extra purpose. Called Le Mani, this warm and welcoming place offers old-fashioned, hand-crafted cuisine and simple, organic produce. The items lining the shelves—salt, sugar, olive oil, cookies, and more—have been crafted by artisans throughout Japan. It also offers young people a chance to follow a path in life not found in many other places. Le Mani currently employs one 21-year-old who came from a children’s home and it is hoped that more will join her. This adventure began five years ago, when Akiko agreed to run a cooking class in a 'halfway house'  run by Catholic women Religious. Its residents are young people, usually between 15 and 20 years of age, who have emerged from government-coordinated care but still require support and guidance as they try to build their own lives. “These children do whatever they can to find work,” Akiko says. “But the search is not easy. The director of the home told me, ‘you know, if you opened a store, we could let the kids work there.” Akiko wanted to know more about the lives of post-institutionalized children, so she attended various information sessions, visited some specialists—and learned some unpleasant truths. Because Japanese law focuses on the well-being of children under 18, they have to leave care at a time when they may just be graduating from high school, even if they have no home and no job to go to. “Children all alone with no place to go face a lifestyle of poverty, and in more than a few cases they become involved in crime or even wind up dead in the gutter,” says Akiko. “To make matters worse for girls, there are men who will marry them just as objects of abuse, and apparently some young women have been drugged by gangs and turned into sex slaves. If that is how it is, I thought to myself, I want to help them, even if it’s only one of them.” Akiko had no experience of management and admits that the prospect scared her, but decided to open the store anyway. People around her, including her family and parish priest, supported her by lending the necessary funds. “I want girls who are leaving institutional care to receive personal nurture,” Akiko says. “I want them to sit around a warm dinner table and be told, ‘your life is important.’ And I want priests and laypeople at church to open their minds and hearts to this problem, even if just a little.”
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